Early Back to School Promotions: Opportunity or Risk?

Before the final bell rang in many schools in Massachusetts this year, office and school supply giant Staples, which is based there, had already started its Back to School promotions.

Although Back to School sales have begun earlier every year, experts and industry watchers say retailers may have pushed things too far, risking the ire of consumers and muddying the marketing waters for brands, while others invoke the old adage “the early bird catches the worm.”

Back to School spending is the second most important time of year for many retailers—Americans spend $72.5 million on everything from clothes, to school supplies, to books, to electronics and more, according to the National Retail Federation.

“In seven and a half years, I’ve never once seen so much emphasis put on back-to-school before July 4,” National Retail Federation spokeswoman Kathy Grannis told AdAge—and that was last year. “It is one of the most competitive times of year for big retailers. They know consumers are on budgets, and they’re vying for those dollars,” Ms. Grannis said in an article published on July 8, 2013.

Despite last year’s media criticism, the push is starting early again this year.

Staples isn’t the only big brand moving its promotions up before the final bell has rung or shortly after it has sounded. J.C. Penney, Lands’ End, Wal-Mart, Apple and others have all been historically early as they vie for a piece of consumers often limited back to school budgets.

“What you’re seeing is retailers are going to do what they can to try to get consumers into the stores to shop, but the fact of the matter is they might not have much luck,” Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group, told CNBC.

Gone are the days when kids headed to the mall with Mom for one day of shopping to get everything they needed in a few hours shortly before school started. Now people are beginning to look earlier, but often putting off major decisions.

The number of parents who are taking a wait and see approach has been growing steadily over the past few years, Beemer said, with up to half of parents delaying buying everything but absolute essential supplies and clothes until after the start of the school year and sometimes even waiting until the holidays when they think they can get better deals.

So where do the opportunities for marketers exist this Back to School season? The key is to know when people are shopping, what devices they use, when and where they are using them, and then targeting the consumer.

Here are some highlights:

  • While searches for Back to School have tended to peak in July in previous years, the indications are that many people started to comparison shop in June, particularly for big ticket items like laptops and tablets. 
  • Back to college furniture and décor could also present opportunities early in the season. Retailers like Target are letting co-eds draw up a registry asking people to chip in for items they want this year in an effort to boost early sales. 
  • In late July and early August, mobile is key as shoppers search for deals on the go and traditional Back to School shoppers hit the stores. More than a third of Back to School shoppers used online and mobile devices to shop, pull up coupons and buy items, according to the NRF.

While it remains to be seen where things land, it’s likely risk will balance reward for marketers in this year’s Back to School season.

“When the calendar says one thing and retailers are telling consumers something very different via sales and promotions, the result can be jarring, even off-putting,” Brad Tuttle wrote in a June 18 piece on Time.com. “Yet retailers assume shoppers have short memories, and they hope that whatever bad feelings a too-early sale produces are outweighed by deals that are just too good to pass up.”

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